Making beaches accessible to disabled an uphill battle for authorities

The city of Folly Beach recently installed a surface mat on a beach access at 110 East to help wheelchairs get over the soft sand that is difficult to wheel through. It’s a cheaper alternative to a wheelchair ramp, but it’s challenging to maintain, officials said.

Wind, sand and waves don’t make for the most wheelchair-friendly environment, but the Lowcountry has a reputation for being hospitable to all — and the Americans with Disabilities Act doesn’t disappear just because someone approaches the water’s edge.

All three beach communities closest to Charleston have different strategies to accommodate people with disabilities and those who are bound to wheelchairs. They’re just not always a breeze to implement and maintain.

“I would say that the topography, the soft sand, the erosion, and the policies that require (ramps) to be up and over the dunes, they do create challenges,” said Douglas Kerr, Isle of Palms building and planning director.

For people in wheelchairs, beach accesses that use wide, flat boardwalks are best — especially if they extend beyond the soft, dry sand. The landscape doesn’t always make that possible, though.

Sometimes, officials will have to build ramps at a slope that can’t be too steep, according to the ADA. And they can’t disrupt the dunes, according to state rules.

Recently, Kerr said Isle of Palms built an ADA-compliant ramp at Pavilion Drive that seemed to meet all the necessary requirements, but the uphill battle isn’t over.

“We worked as hard as we could to make that comply with all these regulations and we felt like we did a good job, and we very quickly learned from a resident that said, ‘Hey, that ramp is really challenging for people with disabilities.’ It’s a 150-foot length of going uphill,” he said. “Communities like ourselves are doing the best we can, but it’s still a challenge.”

On Folly Beach, there are nine places where people with disabilities can get onto the beach. There are flat, sandy pathways that haven’t required special modifications at four access points, including West End County Park.

The city also installed ramps at four other walk-over accesses that comply with the ADA, and it plans to extend one and add another on the west side of the beach this fall. Ramps can cost $25,000 to nearly $100,000, and they are not a perfect solution, according to Folly Beach Mayor Tim Goodwin.

“Sometimes those ramps, with the tides and the winds and the storms, are really a challenge to keep up because they seem to be more readily damaged,” he said.

Special woven mats are a cheaper alternative, costing anywhere from $5,000 to $10,000. They are designed to help wheelchairs roll over the softer sand near the dunes. Folly Beach just rolled one out at 110 E. Arctic Ave.

“This was a chance to try a new product to see if it works, and it might give us use somewhere else if it works there,” Goodwin said.

City Administrator Spencer Wetmore said mats aren’t an ideal remedy, either, since they can be easily covered up by sand on a windy day.

Sullivan’s Island has 12 wooden boardwalks that are well suited to those with mobility issues, according to town administrator Andy Benke. Even so, state regulations prevent the town from extending a boardwalk beyond a certain point. Benke said adding mats hasn’t helped much, so the town is now experimenting with wooden slats at Station 26 to extend past the soft sand.

“It does lie at grade and regular maintenance to remove accumulated sand is required; however, the maintenance effort is much less intensive than a woven fabric mat,” he said.

One solution all three beach communities have found useful is beach-accessible wheelchairs, which are designed with wide wheels and waterproof materials. They can plow through the dense sand more easily than a standard wheelchair, and they can roll right into the waves.

Folly Beach and Sullivan’s Island have three each, available for free rentals through their fire departments. Isle of Palms directs people to Isle of Palms Beach Chair Co., which will rent out the wheelchairs for $70 per day.

Ken Merkel is the director of operations for Avocet Realty, the company that owns the Tides Hotel on Folly Beach. He said it often relies on the city’s services, especially wheelchair rentals, for its guests.

“There are a lot of people we hear of who want to come (stay at the hotel) ... because they are physically ill or in a physical decline and they want to see the ocean one more time,” he said. “It’s just great when you can provide a service, it’s a feel good for all of us at the hotel and the city.”

Christine Bickel, a Folly Beach resident, recently utilized all the services the city provides to people with disabilities when her friend visited from Washington, D.C., with her 8-year-old son, who uses a wheelchair.

She rented a beach wheelchair for him, and used the ADA-compliant beach access near her house.

“We were able to just roll him right down to the beach. He absolutely loved it. We could let him sit in the waves, and see the birds, and just feel the breeze on his face,” she said. “Something about the water really calms him.”

That’s what makes the challenges worth it, Goodwin said.

“You really feel good when you tell somebody ... when they ask a question about a member of their family who has a handicap or had a stroke or whatever it is, and we can give those answers,” he said. “It’s a real challenge for folks, and we just try to make it as accessible as possible.”

Reach Abigail Darlington at 937-5906 and follow her on Twitter @A_Big_Gail